There are some things you should know as the world gears up to watch the semi-final world cup match between Croatia and England.
Only four teams remain from the 32 that started the World Cup 2018 finals. Croatia and England are two of them and will meet in the World Cup’s second semifinal. Here are five things to know about the match and a prediction of how it will finish.
1. Neither coach was expected to get this far
Gareth Southgate’s appointment as England manager in November 2016 did not set pulses racing. Seen as a safe choice after the fiasco of previous boss Sam Allardyce, the likeable Southgate had been in charge of England’s Under-21 side. He comfortably guided England through qualifying and at the finals his youthful team finished second, as most expected, behind Belgium in Group G. Aided by a favorable run in the knockout stages (more below), England find themselves in a World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1990, the nation believes football (soccer) is “coming home” and Southgate is being hailed a messiah.
Croatia coach Zlatko DaliÄ‡ has also exceeded expectations. After a few successful years with Al-Ain, based in the United Arab Emirates, DaliÄ‡ took over Croatia and qualified for the tournament thanks to a play-off win over Greece. Paired with Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland in a tricky Group D, most expected them to advance behind the South Americans (including me). Instead they went one better, finishing top with a 100 per cent record, including a brilliant 3-0 victory against Argentina. After successive penalty shootout wins in the knockout rounds, Croatia have done what most thought impossible – equalled the golden generation team who reached the semi-finals in 1998.
2. Harry Kane and Dejan Lovren have history
With six goals, England captain Harry Kane is on course to become the first England player since 1986 to win the World Cup golden boot. Against Croatia, Kane has good reason to back himself to add to his tally. Kane plays for Tottenham Hotspur and has previously enjoyed success against Croatian centre-back Dejan Lovren, who plays for Liverpool.
In October, Spurs beat Liverpool 4-1 in the English Premier League. Kane scored twice and tormented Lovren, who was substituted after 31 minutes. They have met since – a 2-2 draw – and Lovren is not the sort of character who shirks a challenge. He has been a solid presence in Croatia’s defence this tournament and will be determined to prove his nightmare against Kane was a one off.
3. English dignitaries won’t be there
In the World Cup, politics are never too far away. Since the tournament’s opening match, when Russia President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were pictured awkwardly sitting together as Russia thrashed the Saudis 5-0, political leaders have been in the stands. But English dignitaries have not been among them and will not, even if the Three Lions reach the final.
English politicians and royals decided against attending after a former spy was poisoned in England. England blames the attack on Russia. Croatia president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, on the other hand, has no problem attending the finals and was a noticeable presence during Croatia’s quarter-final win over Russia. Wearing Croatia’s iconic red and white squared shirt, Grabar-Kitarovic watched the match alongside Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and even joined the post-match celebrations in the dressing room.
4. Luka Modric pulls Croatia’s strings
When the midfield magician plays well, Croatia play well. Now captain of his country, Modric is more crucial than ever to Croatia’s chances of success. He has scored two goals, in group matches against Argentina and Nigeria, as well as two penalties in the shootout successes over Denmark and Russia.
Modric makes Croatia tick and his typically impressive performances alongside Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic are a key reason Croatia have made it this far. But Modric is 32 and came into the tournament on the back of a long season with Real Madrid, while Croatia have also endured an energy-sapping knockout stage (more below). Croatia will be depending on Modric having enough left in the tank for the team to run at full speed.
5. England might have fate on their side
As previously mentioned, England have had a kind run to the semi-final. FIFA’s World Rankings should be taken with a grain of salt (Germany, who went out in the group stage, are currently first), but the fact is England could reach the World Cup final without playing a team in the top 15. This excludes the final, dead rubber group match against Belgium, which England lost 1-0.
But, as many England fans have correctly pointed out, a team can only beat what’s in front of it. England has done that, overcoming a penalty jinx in a tetchy Round of 16 win against Colombia, then cruising to victory over an unimpressive Sweden in the quarter-final. Against Croatia, they face a good side but one that must be fatigued after coming through two extra time periods and penalty shootouts. Even as Croatia coach DaliÄ‡ insists his team have “plenty of energy”, a fresher England must be thinking their good fortune is set to continue.
I think this will be a tight match between two relatively evenly matched teams. If this were the opening group match, I would back Croatia, but I can’t see them raising their game, and energy levels, enough to beat a youthful England. I’m backing England to win, 2-1. Whether they can beat Belgium or France in the final is a different story.